NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It hasn't been that long since Rob Ryan was the toast of the Big Easy.
The Saints' defensive coordinator was a regular at an old, no-frills corner bar in New Orleans' Uptown neighborhood after home victories last season. He'd bask in the adoration of patrons who celebrated his success turning around a defense that had been dismal before his arrival.
Yet, during the first five weeks of this season, the performance of Ryan's unit has more often been a source of disillusionment among fans taking to talk radio and social media to vent their frustration.
"I don't blame them for hating me right now," Ryan said recently.
"They'll be fine," he added, hopefully. "This is New Orleans. They love the Who Dats."
At 2-3 as they break for their bye, the Saints have so far failed to meet expectations they would improve on their 11-5 record. The 2013 squad posted the franchise's first road playoff victory before falling in Seattle to the eventual Super Bowl champs.
The defense ranked fourth in yards allowed in 2013. So far this season, the Saints are allowing nearly 380 yards per game, which ranks 25th, and 28.2 points per game, which ranks 28th.
Incidentally, Ryan's travel plans for the bye week represent a significant departure from last year, when he and his wife went to Key West. This week, Ryan said, he was going to visit his father, Buddy Ryan, who was renowned for his defensive acumen as both a coordinator and head coach.
This might be a good time for some fatherly advice.
"We still need to tackle better, but the energy is there. Guys are playing hard," Ryan said. "We want to be a better defense than this and it's just going to keep taking a lot of work."
The addition of three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, an interception machine when he was with Buffalo, hasn't worked out as hoped. Byrd forced a fumble but had yet to intercept a pass before his season ended with a knee injury in practice on Oct. 2.
Meanwhile, the pass-rushing tandem of end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette, who combined for 24 1/2 sacks in 2013, got off to a slow start. Ryan said that was because opposing passers have unloaded the ball about a half-second quicker, on average, than a season ago.
"That's a big difference," said Ryan, whose unit has six sacks so far.
"People constantly change their protections," Ryan said. "With our success last season, with the two edge guys dominating like they did and the push up the middle, I think people have more plans to slow that down. But at the end of the day we need to get on this passer and we need to do it better."
Coach Sean Payton generally avoids assigning blame to a specific unit or personnel group for disappointing results. Payton said he would like to see the offense, for which he calls plays, help the defense by converting more third downs to extend possessions, and by converting more red-zone opportunities into touchdowns instead of field goals.
Still, with the ever-prolific Drew Brees at quarterback, Payton's offense has annually ranked among the NFL's best, and this season is no different.
After Week 5, New Orleans ranked first in yards per game (442.8) and 10th in points per game (26.4), doing it with balance. Running back Mark Ingram, who could return after the bye from a broken hand, averaged 6 yards per carry in the first two games. Khiry Robinson has averaged 5 yards per carry in Ingram's absence and scored an 18-yard touchdown in overtime to beat Tampa Bay.
The Saints weren't far from being 4-1. In each of their first two games, they lost slim leads inside the final 10 seconds on the road. Each time, the defense couldn't get a stop after both Atlanta and Cleveland began their final possessions of regulation in their own territory.
Fortunately for New Orleans, no team is running away with the NFC South. New Orleans emerged form Week 5 in second place in the division, one game behind Carolina (3-2), with 11 games still remaining, including two against the Panthers.
Payton wanted better results, particularly with a seemingly tougher stretch of games coming up, starting at Detroit in Week 7. Yet the coach said he also wasn't surprised to see a few mistakes turn what could have been a promising start into a less satisfying one.
"It is always challenging to win in our league," Payton said. "You learn about your team and then you quickly go into making the corrections and trying to improve.
"We are still at that early part of the season where it is going to be critical that we continue to make the improvements necessary to catch up and put ourselves in a winning position," Payton added. "That is where we are at right now."
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Posted on Sat, October 11, 2014
by BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer